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The Politics of Saddam

What Saddam's capture means for the 2004 race and the Democratic contenders. Hint: It's bad for Howard Dean.

5:30 PM, Dec 14, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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LET'S BE CRASS and assess the politics of the capture of Saddam Hussein. No one is boosted more than President Bush, the beneficiary of so much good news this fall (surging economy, 10,000 Dow, Medicare drug benefit). For him, only one more thing has to fall into place to assure re-election. That's a sharp turn for the better in the twilight war against the Baathist diehards and their motley allies in the Sunni triangle of Iraq. The grabbing of Saddam, a pathetic, cowardly Saddam, could lead to exactly that--but not necessarily. A turning point was declared when Saddam's sons were killed last July, only to be followed by an increase in the terrorist attacks on American troops and Iraqis.

The big loser is Howard Dean--potentially. Dean has embarked on an image-altering effort so he'll be seen as a centrist on foreign affairs. In interviews with the Washington Post and New York Times, he insisted the differences between himself and Bush are not great, mainly about style, not substance. He offered this amazing statement to the Times: "It's all about nuance." In truth, there's rarely been a presidential candidate with a less nuanced approach to foreign affairs.

Dean demonstrated this once again in his response to Saddam's capture. He praised the capture, then claimed that it had created "an enormous opportunity" to adopt what amounts to the Iraq policy of France. First, do "everything possible" to bring the United Nations, NATO, and others into the effort in Iraq. In other words, turn the Iraq situation over to those who not only favored keeping Saddam in power, but also sought to undermine the American policy of regime change in Iraq from the moment it was first announced by President Clinton in 1998. And second, speed up the turnover of power to Iraqis. There's nothing nuanced about that advice. And by the way, Dean claimed last week that he had never called Saddam a "danger" to the United States.

Oddly enough, Dean's rivals for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination echoed his call for a change in American policy in Iraq. Though the capture of Saddam shows the Bush postwar policy is having some success, the Democrats believe this is precisely the moment to adopt a new tack in Iraq.

"It's a magnificent opportunity for the president of the United States to shift gears," said John Kerry on "Fox News Sunday." John Edwards put it this way: "I hope President Bush will use this opportunity to chart a course in Iraq that will bring our allies in a meaningful way to achieve a democratic and peaceful Iraq." Even Joe Lieberman, an unflinching supporter of the war in Iraq, fell in line. "If I were president today, I would go back to the allies, back to the U.N., [and] get them to help us rebuild Iraq."

A few assumptions underlie this advice. One is that the most important step for Bush to take now is diplomatic and not, say, an intensified military offensive to end the terrorist threat in Iraq. Another assumption is that France, Germany, and Russia actually want to be helpful in Iraq, except that they've been rudely brushed aside by Bush. And still another is that the drive for security and stability in Iraq stands a better chance of being successful if the United Nations and friends are in charge. Of course, all of these assumptions are dubious if not absurd.

THANK HEAVEN FOR JOE LIEBERMAN. Alone among Dean's opponents, he has figured out that the only way to deny Dean the nomination is to go after him aggressively. On "Meet the Press" and during other appearances Sunday, Lieberman emphasized that if Dean's advice had been followed, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. "The world would be a much more dangerous place," Lieberman said. "The American people would have much more to fear." Lieberman will need to repeat this attack on Dean day after day for it to be effective, but there's time. The Iowa caucuses, the first official contest, are not until January 19.

Contrary to convention wisdom, Dean is vulnerable on the war issue even among Democrats, though probably not among a majority of Democrats. But you don't need a majority to win a caucus or a primary. A plurality will do just fine. The only chance of halting the Dean juggernaut is through confronting the candidate frontally. Kerry, too, indicated he might be ready to do this. Unlike Lieberman and Gephardt, however, Kerry is less credible because he waffled on the war after initially voting for the congressional resolution authorizing the president to invade Iraq.